November 05, 2000 Chicago Sun-Times

FAA alleges union organized jet slowdown

November 5, 2000

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

Initially portrayed as a wildcat action, an alleged slowdown by air traffic controllers on July 17 was orchestrated by local union leaders, and nearly ignited on a second day, the federal government suggests in a report obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Federal Aviation Administration document also suggests that union officials, by using phrases such as "run a safe operation" in postings and discussions with fellow controllers, tapped a secret code to do the minimum work required.

SLOWDOWN LOWDOWN

Here are the number of arrivals processed at O'Hare airport on July 17, the day the FAA claims controllers engaged in an illegal slowdown, on July 20, when an FAA report suggests another union slowdown was attempted, and on July 13, a comparable day for weather and runway use.

Time Period

7/13

7/176

7/20

7 a.m. - 8 a.m.

83

75

79

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.

88

64

69

9 a.m. - 10 a.m.

82

68

82

10 a.m. - 11 a.m.

74

60

66

11 a.m. - 12 p.m.

78

64

72

12 p.m. - 1 p.m.

76

64

78

1 p.m. - 2 p.m.

89

63

74

2 p.m. - 3 p.m.

76

75

67

3 p.m. - 4 p.m.

86

69

67

4 p.m. - 5 p.m.

73

73

70

5 p.m. - 6 p.m.

88

68

73

6 p.m. - 7 p.m.

77

74

77

7 p.m. - 8 p.m.

80

73

79

8 p.m. - 9 p.m.

80

83

65

NOTE: The FAA's report says O'Hare historically has been able to safely handle 80 landings per hour using the same runway configuration as on July 17. SOURCE: FAA

"The term `safe operation' is particularly significant since . . . historically . . . terms such as `safe operation' and `safety program' have been euphemisms for work force actions to express dissatisfaction with management, namely working to the rule or slowdowns," the report states. "Similar `safety' exercises were formulated in both 1993 and again in 1996 to express dissatisfaction with management."

The July 17 action--in which hundreds of commercial flights were snarled and thousands of passengers inconvenienced--highlights the simmering labor-management dispute that has been part of Chicago area aviation for many decades, and is sure to continue.

The FAA announced in late September that 15 controllers would be disciplined for participating in or lying about the alleged slowdown on July 17, a picture-perfect day that saw a whopping 418 delays.

They work at Elgin's Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, which handles aircraft within a 40-mile radius of O'Hare and Midway airports. They face discipline ranging from 30-day suspensions to letters of reprimand, while two non-union FAA managers, Kip Johns and Gordon Woodahl, were transferred.

In interviews, controllers don't dispute they applied excessive spacing, which would slow traffic. The FAA said there were five to seven miles between planes, when three miles was the norm. But the controllers insist that it wasn't done as a coordinated protest, although they were angry with Johns for what they considered his heavy-handed style in dealing with controllers who violated spacing requirements.

Although one controller conceded that some colleagues may have perceived the postings and then-union President Charlie Bunting's call for a "safe operation" as a way to stick it to Johns, he said that wasn't the intent.

Fear of harsh punishments, and Johns' insistence that they pass an FAA inspection being conducted that day, made them extremely cautious, they said.

Controllers said several factors raise serious questions about the probe--conducted by the FAA and the U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general's office--and the government's claim of an illegal slowdown.

They noted, and documents indicate, that the controllers initially passed the inspection, which the facility had failed the last eight times.

"But you can't pass a major national evaluation when you're in the process of a major national slowdown," said an anonymous controller, explaining the FAA's presumed rationale for eventually rescinding the passing grade.

Second, no supervisors or inspectors ever told controllers to decrease spacing on July 17, and the FAA initially blamed the delays on heavy winds, controllers said. Also, a log book that should have mentioned the incident didn't--until two days later when it was allegedly altered, they said. And there were subsequent days with similar weather conditions that saw even more delays, yet there was no suggestion of a slowdown then, they said.

Equally perplexing, controllers said, was that two of the 15 disciplinary cases, including former union vice president Mike Egan's, were quietly dropped just after the punishments were announced by the FAA. Another controller saw his proposed punishment increased, and three or four others saw their 15-day suspensions dropped to 14 days, just below the minimum threshold for a public review before a merit board, controllers said.

Bunting was reassigned to an Aurora air traffic control center, and he and Egan were forced to resign their union posts in the wake of the investigation, controllers said. Bunting and several other union representatives are among those still facing penalties. But if the FAA believed union leaders were involved in an illegal slowdown, controllers say, why was nobody fired, and why wasn't the Elgin center's union decertified?

The FAA won't comment, other than to say in a written statement that its investigation is complete and "penalties proposed for controllers are still subject to review and possible modification."

But there are theories swirling about the union, including one that John Carr, the new national president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and a one-time Elgin controller, brokered a deal with FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.

Carr dismissed that notion. "I have spoken with her on this issue and a host of other issues," he said, adding it "would be a gross mis-characterization" to say that they sat down and "meted out" punishments.

He said he doesn't believe there was an intentional slowdown, and the FAA isn't "bound by any firm or rigid guidelines" in handing out penalties. He said the union plans to appeal each case.

Garvey refused to be interviewed. "The FAA will not talk about how the penalties were reached," said FAA spokesman Paul Turk.

A reason for the tight lips could be that the FAA and the union leadership in Washington want to keep matters relatively low key to avoid the possibility of litigation, sources said.

Twenty years ago, O'Hare controllers, then represented by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, were sued by the FAA and the airline industry after a contract-related slowdown. That union later crumbled after a national strike that led President Ronald Reagan to fire most controllers.

Yet another theory involves the FAA's sensitivity to its image, battered over the past two years as delays and cancellations surged. "It's a black eye for the agency, no matter what happened that day," said one FAA employee, noting that the agency probably didn't want more distractions before Tuesday's election or to risk members of Congress convening a special hearing.

"I think the reason this was handled the way it was, was because neither side wanted any adverse publicity," said a former FAA manager. "No. 1, looking at the liability issue. No. 2, it's bad press."

He said morale among managers is low because many think Woodahl got a bad break. Woodahl could not be reached.

The FAA report claims labor-management relations were poor in the days leading up to July 17. Three days prior, controllers marched "en masse" from the NATCA office to their workplaces as a show of unity, the report states.

On July 16, a controller was chided by a colleague for being "not safe." Following the "admonition," spacing between planes was increased, the report states.

On July 18, Bunting told FAA managers at a meeting that he wanted controllers to get immunity for operational errors, the report states. When he didn't get the desired response, Bunting said something to the effect of, "I have no other alternative than to tell the bargaining unit to continue to run a `safe operation,' " the report states.

On July 20, "there appeared to be a limited attempt to apply excessive spacing at the start of the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift," according to the report. "This attempt was quickly halted by supervisors who relieved and counseled CPC's [controllers] on providing appropriate spacing."

Bunting and Egan declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the inspector general's office. Johns could not be reached to comment.

All sides say safety was never compromised that week. Interestingly, the word "safe" is avoided by Elgin controllers now that they are accused of using it as a code.

"Now when somebody says, `Is it safe?', we say, `goddamn no it's not safe, it's unsafe,' " a controller said.

***

Controllers admit to bunching planes under pressure

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

It's one of the FAA's dirty little secrets: Air traffic controllers who handle flights in the Chicago area sometimes violate the minimum separation requirement between airplanes when traffic is heavy.

Why? Because they are under immense pressure from the FAA, which is under pressure from the airlines, to process efficiently the soaring number of aircraft in the skies, several controllers conceded in interviews.

"It's been that way since I've been around," said one veteran controller.

Separation standards can vary by aircraft type. For instance, two 737s following each other into O'Hare, if they're more than 10 miles away, can be no closer than three miles apart laterally, a controller explained.

"We'd go to 1.5 miles up, consistently," the controller said. "A great majority run two to three miles. It's definitely not unsafe. Nobody would do something unsafe.

"But what happens when you run that tight, your reaction time has to be great. You really have to watch them like a hawk. . . . There was a wink-wink kind of thing," with FAA supervisors who tacitly supported such an operation. "That's what the airlines want."

A former FAA manager said it probably happens, but not so much as in last years. Automation makes it more difficult to go undetected, he said.